MALAI DISTRICT, Banteay Meanchey province – Ieng Sary, one of the principal leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, who died last week in the middle of a war crimes trial in which he and two others were accused of genocide, was cremated Thursday.
Though the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister was accused of heinous crimes during the Pol Pot regime, the ceremony held here in this once rebel stronghold resembled a returning hero’s funeral.
Outside Ieng Sary’s large wooden house Thursday morning, rows of monks chanted and blessed Ieng Sary’s four children.
Hundreds of white-clad guests streamed into the compound wearing the same black ribbons so recently seen on the lapels of mourners at the funeral of another man who was instrumental in charting the course of Cambodia’s modern day history-King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
The streams of visitors took turns to light incense and pray in front of Ieng Sary’s elaborate gold and cream coffin inside the house, prostrating themselves before a black and white photograph showing the former leader as a young man. Outside in the yard, another brightly hand-painted coffin sat on a stupa with a chimney – a purpose-built crematorium.
Ieng Sary’s wife, Ieng Thirith was one of the last people to arrive at the house at about 3 p.m., carried from a van straight into the room where her husband’s body lay in order to avoid the assembled media throng outside.
Ieng Thirith, the former Khmer Rouge social action minister, has been living with family in Pailin province since being released from detention at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) last September. She had been on trial for war crimes alongside her husband and the remaining two defendants Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, but was declared mentally unfit to stand trial due to advanced dementia.
On Thursday, the slight woman was brought out of the house only briefly to bid her husband farewell. Carried in a chair by family members, her twisted feet resting on a pillow, the former Khmer Rouge intellectual and sister-in-law of Pol Pot, cried quietly, dabbing at her eyes frequently and blowing her nose.
Walking with difficulty to the stupa, she lit an incense stick and spoke: “Papa, please rest in peace. Did you meet my sister’s soul yet?” Ieng Thirith’s late sister, Khieu Ponnary, was Pol Pot first wife.
Then, as quickly as she had arrived, she was bundled back into the van and driven away.
Prior to her departure, her only son with Ieng Sary—they also have three daughters—Ieng Vuth, deputy governor of Pailin province, led an elaborate funeral procession around the crematorium in front of the house. Clothed in a white robe, Ieng Vuth had his head adorned with a crown of rope, which was attached to his father’s coffin.
The procession circled the crematorium three times before the coffin-bearers ascended the stairs and placed his coffin on the stupa.
It was a ceremony steeped in Buddhist tradition, one of Thursday’s many small ironies given that under the communist regime religion was banned, monks were forced to disrobe, and pagodas were desecrated. But it was an irony the monks- who received cash, water, instant noodles and tinned sardines as alms during the ceremony- declined to acknowledge.
“We don’t think about what he did, he’s Cambodian and he died,” explained Sin Sopheap, 37, a monk from the local pagoda in Malai. “Of course, under his regime they eliminated Buddhism, but now he’s dead and many of his family and friends have come to respect him and give food to the monks. Many people here think Ieng Sary is a hero.”
Many former Khmer Rouge fighters were also in attendance at the funeral. Wrapped in kramas and with betel nut-stained mouths sucking on cigarettes, some were war veterans who now walk on cheap prosthetics or crutches. They remembered the deceased fondly.
Suong Sikoeun, 77, a former Khmer Rouge Foreign Ministry official, who was head of propaganda and now lives in Malai, said he had joined the movement in 1957. Mr. Sikoeun testified at the tribunal for several days last year.
“I worked closely with Ieng Sary. The day before he was arrested by the ECCC, Ieng Sary called me to meet him and he told me that he was disappointed he had worked for our nation but this was now the result.”
Kim Sodo, 55, another ex-Khmer Rouge soldier, also from Malai, said he had come to the funeral to pay his respects to Ieng Sary. When asked about the Khmer Rouge’s rule, and the killings and torture that had occurred during it, he demurred.
“I respect him as my former boss, and an old leader,” he said.
Also among the guests were members of Ieng Sary’s legal defense team from the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) in Phnom Penh. National defense lawyer Ang Udom and his international counterpart Michael Karnavas were greeted warmly by Ieng Sary’s son Ieng Vuth, whom they presented with a gift-a framed photograph of lawyer and client together in court.
“The photo encapsulates my relationship with Ieng Sary,” Mr. Karnavas said. “One of the things we tried to do was ensure throughout the process that there was human dignity in the way he was treated.”
“After five years and five months of intensely working on this case, one of my most difficult ever, it’s very difficult not to become attached to the client,” he added.
The U.N.-backed court-which will now never hand down a verdict for Ieng Sary-has been plagued with problems of late, including a lack of funds and a strike by national staff angry at not having been paid since November. It has also suffered allegations of corruption and political interference. With two of the four original defendants now out of the trial, some experts have questioned whether the project-which has so far cost about $173 million-has failed.
“The prosecution wanted an all-inclusive indictment,” Mr. Karnavas said. “They took the risk, they knew these people were eighty years old. Now we have this as a result. The question remains, have any lessons been learned?”
While victims of the regime failed to see a verdict for Ieng Sary or his wife, they also failed to receive any kind of reparations, something that some civil parties have indicated they would be keen to see.
Ieng Sary is believed to have amassed considerable personal wealth during his years in power-another irony as money was banned under the Khmer Rouge. He is thought to have had access to a Hong Kong bank account through which the Chinese funded the movement both when it was in and out of power. According to the testimony of former cadre, the account at one point contained $20 million.
Ieng Sary’s son, Ieng Vuth, declined to answer questions about his family’s wealth on Thursday or how the funeral costs were being footed. Horn Vanny, his daughter, also declined to speak to reporters, asking to be left alone to mourn her father in peace.
But, in a speech just before his body was burned, Ms. Vanny addressed her father directly, saying “You have attained freedom” and thanked his lawyers from the tribunal.
As evening fell, Y Chhean, the governor of Pailin and the former chief bodyguard of Pol Pot, arrived in a Lexus to pay his respects and light the candle, which ignited the crematorium.
Asked about his attendance at the ceremony, Mr. Chhean shot back that it was normal to attend the funeral of someone you knew to pay your respects.
As the smoke began to billow from the crematorium chimney, a firework display was let off- hissing magenta and gold against the night sky-a vivid end to part of a dark chapter in Cambodian history.